Generally speaking, I'm not really a fan of Facebook Messenger.
Call me a fuddy-duddy, but I've never quite forgiven our social networking overlord for requiring I have yet another app on my phone dedicated exclusively to Facebook. I will also never understand those friends and family members who insist on only contacting me through the messaging platform.
(Spare everyone from the drama -- if I don't respond on Facebook, call me like a sane person, instead of assuming I hate you.)
But then the news broke this week that James Patterson -- best-selling author and the 1990s book-to-movie powerhouse who transformed Matthew McConaughey from a deodorant-optional bongo player into a courageous young lawyer in Mississippi -- had decided to publish his new novel, The Chef, exclusively on the Facebook Messenger platform.
Patterson says the publishing industry's lack of innovation in the modern era moved him to experiment with creating the social media-based immersive experience.
“If Ulysses came out now, online, there would be like four readers, and they’d all say, ‘This sucks,’ and that'd be the end of Ulysses,” he said in an interview with Newsweek.
Strangely enough, for a story I considered an easily forgettable publicity stunt at first -- especially in the context of marketing -- Patterson's move opens up a larger discussion about the way brands and marketers can chart a similar digital path to reach consumers.
But First, What Does This Social Media Novel Look Like?
I'm going to be honest, it took me awhile to find it.
Even though I'm sure there are some obvious directions I missed, I didn't know what I was supposed to do. But eventually, after locating the Facebook Messenger app on the third page of a folder on my iPhone -- banished like an unruly child in timeout -- and searching for James Patterson like he was a contact, I stumbled upon The Chef.
Here's a quick video of me test-driving this experience on my phone this morning:
I haven't spent a ton of time with it, and I'm not 100 percent sure how far down the rabbit hole I will go. (I need an evening or so to fully evaluate the viability of something like this -- I fear change and have a tendency to declare something awful before I've even given it a chance, so... we'll see how it goes.)
That said, the overall idea here is very intriguing. And Patterson's move has reminded me how much I do enjoy immersive digital experiences like this.
The Power of Immersive Digital Social Experiences
There's an iPhone app called Shine that I'm marginally obsessed with. (FYI, it's not available for Android yet.)
It's a self-care app that sends you daily affirmations, and you check-in each morning by answering the same two questions -- what are you grateful for today, and what are you going to do to make yourself feel good today?
Unlike the Patterson novel, Shine operates through its own independent application, instead of being funneled through a pre-existing social network.
But like the Patterson novel, it mimics an online messaging conversation you might experience through Facebook or text -- complete with multimedia like gifs, video, links, and audio -- so it is comforting through familiarity. It also requires active participation on my part to move the action forward.
Again, while I'm not sure how much I will enjoy this new frontier of reading a book, I can tell you that with Shine my practice of gratitude has never been more consistent.
(I'm definitely that person that spent $25+ on that Five Minute Journal everyone raved about for a hot minute, only to give up on it three days later. But with Shine, I'm closing in on 30 straight days of my gratitude practice, with no signs of slowing down.)
Why This New Approach Works for Brands
Granted, how well an app or digital experience like Shine or The Chef works comes down to how well researched and executed the underlying strategy is. Flashy technology is no substitute for actual substance, in the marketing world.
That said, my totally subjective opinion is that, when a brand nails this digital experience approach, it's incredibly addictive.
There are three benefits of this medium to thank for that:
First, as I mentioned, it's familiar. Even though the brand or the book may be new to me or other users, the fact that I intuitively understand the interface they're either using directly (or trying to emulate) makes it easy for me to teach myself how to interact with what's in front of me. Very little thinking is required to get me going.
Second, it feels personal. Intellectually, I understand that both The Chef and the Shine "texts" I interact with are programmed by people in advance and experienced by millions of other people in the exact same way. But it still feels like I have this one-to-one very human connection whenever I am talking to the robot in my hand. In the case of Shine, this feeling of having a mysterious digital friend telling me, "You go girl!" every single day shortened the runway significantly for me to go from casual user to rampant brand evangelist.
Third, that brand is now top-of-mind at least once a day. While The Chef has a limited shelf-life -- and who knows how long it might be until another similar digital literary experiment hits the internet -- it's now something that I look forward to playing with when I have more time after work today. And with Shine, the team there has scored a big win, because once a day, they have my full attention.
Of Course, I Still Have a Few Reservations
Here are my three primary concerns and/or grievances, in no particular order:
Out of side, out of mind? A physical book on my nightstand is a tangible, in-my-face reminder that I'm not reading something I said I would. In the digital world -- where everything on my phone is flashing, every website is trying to grab my attention, and my social network notifications sometimes go out of control -- I could see myself easily forgetting to keep up with an immersive digital book or app. In my mind, you're either completely memorable and winning at this medium, or you're collecting pixel dust in the corner.
Marketers ruin everything. Whenever something new and shiny shows up at the intersection of marketing and digital, we have a tendency to beat to death with a hammer. Use of this medium only works when it's done well and with purpose. I could see some poor brand spend lots of money dreaming up something like this, because they're trying to keep up with the Marketing Joneses across the street, but it all fails because of poor planning or a lack of understanding that it might not be the right fit for them or their audience. So, they wasted all of those resources on another pointless app or experience no one asked for.
Notifications make me feel guilty, and then I ignore you. Kind of like that promise you made to yourself on January 1 that you were totally, absolutely, 100%, for realsies going to start hitting the gym before 7 a.m. three times a week, it's easy to fall out of the habit of engaging and interacting with these digital attention-seeking apps and experiences. And when I do, I dread seeing the reminder notifications of, "Hey, haven't seen you in awhile." Suddenly, my reflexive feelings toward that brand are negative. Even though it's my fault that I'm a slacker, and the brand did nothing wrong, they still pay the price, because I'm not about to take any sort of responsibility with this.
"OK, What's the Bottom Line?"
Unlike getting started with video, you can't exactly get out there and start experimenting on the fly with this new digital marketing opportunity without some budget, development expertise, and a healthy dose of planning.
However, there is a considerable opportunity here for the right brand or individual -- whether you're transforming an every day experience like reading a story, or creating an immersive solution where historically people have struggled with low engagement or sticking with a new habit.
Again, you can't cut corners when it comes to strategy, and your brand will only succeed if you're solving an actual problem for an audience that is glued to the digital computer in their pocket. But I'm still excited to see who else gets it right next.